Kilimanjaro cable car: is it a good idea? That depends on its purpose

It was widely reported earlier this month that the Tanzanian Minister for Tourism has announced that work will begin soon on a cable car up Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain.

There have been various announcements about this cable car over the last 2½ years, since it was first reported by Reuters in 2019. All of them have been light on detail, resulting in an avalanche of speculation each time, mostly negative. Whether it will actually happen is anyone’s guess, but it’s a while since I’ve had a good rant on the blog and some of you might be missing it, so I thought I’d toss my own thoughts out there too. In any case, it’s always nice to remind myself about Kilimanjaro.

Kilimanjaro, the jewel of Africa, from Mount Meru, Tanzania
Kilimanjaro, the jewel of Africa, from Mount Meru, Tanzania

Before I get stuck in, I’d like to start by saying I really hope they don’t build a cable car up Kilimanjaro. Had I been alive in the 19th century, I would have been the first person to choke on his porridge when told they were going to build a railway up Snowdon. Should they ever threaten to string a cable up Ben Nevis, I will sign every online petition on the internet and tell my friends on social media (yes indeed). In the old days I might even have written a letter to my MP.

That being said, I think it’s very likely someone will build a cable car up Kilimanjaro one day, and there won’t be much I can do about it. So let’s assume it’s going to happen. What are the main concerns and how can we address them to, in the words of Bing Crosby, ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive and ee-lim-min-ate the negative?

The complaints are many, some more obvious than others: it will be bad for the environment, too many trees will be cut down, it will take jobs away from the thousands of porters who are employed to carry equipment for trekkers, taking a cable car is cheating, and tourists will get altitude sickness as soon as they disembark at the summit.

All of these complaints depend on the finer details of the proposal, information that is extremely hard to obtain. One very important point to clear up though, is that unless there’s a cape buffalo hiding at the end of my garden, we can safely say that they’re not going to build a cable car all the way to the summit – that would be crazy and a possible death sentence for many tourists who disembark at the top.

There is a marvellous view of Kibo, Kilimanjaro's central summit, from the Shira Plateau
There is a marvellous view of Kibo, Kilimanjaro’s central summit, from the Shira Plateau

The most detailed article I’ve seen on the subject was published in Outside magazine in February 2021. Citing information from a local tour operator, they state that the cable is likely to follow the Machame Route on the southwest side of the mountain, starting at the Machame Gate (1,800m) and climbing 2,000m up to the Shira Plateau, the high plateau ranging between 3,500 to 4,000m to the west of Kibo, Kilimanjaro’s main summit.

This would make sense. The Machame Gate is the most accessible starting point of all Kilimanjaro’s hiking routes, a short drive above Moshi, the main town beneath the mountain’s southern flanks. This would make the cable car more attractive to day trippers who are not interested in climbing the mountain but wouldn’t mind a nice sightseeing trip.

Which brings me to the main question of this post. The argument for a cable car up Kilimanjaro is an economic one. There isn’t much positive to say on the environmental and ecological front. In the Kilimanjaro chapter of Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, I provided some statistics about how frighteningly quickly Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are melting. Hans Meyer, who completed an ice climb to make the first ascent of Kilimanjaro in the 19th century, made a rough survey of its glaciers in 1889 and calculated there were 32km2 of them. By 1912 this had shrunk to less than 20km2. In 1953 there were just 11km2, and by 2003 less than 4km2.

Scientists currently believe the main reason Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are disappearing so quickly is not because global warming is causing the ice to melt more quickly, but because there is less snowfall replenishing them. In the last century there has been much deforestation to make way for fields and houses, causing the air to be less humid, and resulting in less precipitation. A cable car will surely require more trees to be felled.

Kilimanjaro's glaciers are shrinking rapidly, as you can see from these photos of the Furtwangler Glacier, from Uhuru Peak, in 2002 (left) and in 2016 (right) (Photos: Mark Horrell)
Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are shrinking rapidly, as you can see from these photos of the Furtwangler Glacier, from Uhuru Peak, in 2002 (left) and in 2016 (right) (Photos: Mark Horrell)

The retreat of animals from Kilimanjaro’s slopes has been equally rapid. The carcass of a leopard was famously found close to the summit in 1926 at the place now known as Leopard Point. Bill Tilman saw a herd of 27 eland (a type of antelope) on The Saddle, a plateau above 4,000m, in 1933. Prior to 1950, rhinos were often encountered in the forests above Marangu, and wild dogs were sometimes spotted in the Mandara Huts area above the forest zone. The elephant population on Kilimanjaro was estimated to be around 1,500 in 1965. Nowadays, most tourists are unlikely to see a large mammal, other than the occasional monkey in the forest zone. With 50,000 trekkers climbing Kilimanjaro every year, it’s not hard to see why.

Nope, it’s not possible to make an argument on environmental grounds, except by arguing that an increase in tourism will cause money to be invested in environmental projects elsewhere. By installing a cable car, the Tanzanian government hopes to give a much needed boost to a tourism sector that has been hit hard by COVID. In 2019, over 1.5m tourists visited Tanzania. In 2020, the figures plunged to 620,000. In 2021 they recovered slightly to 716,000 in the first 10 months of the year.

But will a cable car up Kilimanjaro really help? Well, that depends on who it’s for. If it’s to shorten the journey for trekkers aiming for the summit, then it may not help much because those trekkers aren’t coming to enjoy the cable car. If, on the other hand, it’s for day trippers heading up for a nice view before going back down again, then it could work.

Lots of people have been asking whether it’s safe to send people up to 3,800m with no acclimatisation. 3,800m is certainly high enough to bring on altitude sickness, even for those who are partially acclimatised. But the good news is that mild altitude sickness is completely curable, with no side effects, by going back down again. As long as those who experience altitude sickness are able to descend rapidly (which they can do by taking the next car down) then the trip is reasonably safe, if not without some risk.

A volcanic skyline can be seen from the cable car station at Cruz Loma (4,050m) above the city of Quito, Ecuador
A volcanic skyline can be seen from the cable car station at Cruz Loma (4,050m) above the city of Quito, Ecuador

Indeed, there are already a number of cable cars in the world that send people up to this altitude. Perhaps the best known is the Aiguille du Midi cable car, which takes tourists from 1,000m in Chamonix, France, up to 3,800m in just a few minutes for views of Mont Blanc. In 2003 I used it for acclimatisation prior to some climbs in the Alps. On my second day in Chamonix I spent a couple of hours in the café at the top and came back down again. It did me no harm and it probably helped me acclimatise. In Ecuador, a cable car takes tourists from 2,850m in Quito up to 4,050m at Cruz Loma. Many day trippers then hike up to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4,698m) and come back down again. I’ve done this a couple of times myself; I suffered no ill effects and it was a great way to acclimatise.

The café at Cruz Loma offers amazing views down to Quito and its surrounding skyline. On Kilimanjaro, the view would be upwards. Many tourists come to Moshi and spend several days in the surrounding area without so much as a glimpse of Kilimanjaro’s summit. The mountain is surrounded by forest on its lower slopes, which means clouds of evaporation form at mid-altitudes, obscuring the summit from below. By the time you’ve ascended to 3,800m on the Shira Plateau, however, you are likely to be above these clouds and have a much better chance of having great views of Kibo, Kilimanjaro’s main summit.

If the purpose of a cable car is to bring day trippers with no intention of climbing Kilimanjaro up to the Shira Plateau for views of Kibo before going back down again, then it could meet its purpose of bringing more tourists to Kilimanjaro who wouldn’t otherwise come, thus boosting the economy. You could also do this with a road, but you could argue that a cable car has less impact. A road would need to zigzag up through the forest and need more trees to be cleared, while a cable can take a direct line. But a cable also has a finite number of cars, placing a hard limit on the number of tourists who can be transported – again, better for the environment.

If, on the other hand, the cable car will be used by trekking operators to shortcut the climb for their clients, then it’s a very bad idea. A rapid ascent from 1,800m to 3,800m is only beneficial to acclimatisation if you descend again to sleep. If you sleep at 3,800m then you are likely to wake up with a headache at the very least, if not worse, and you will need to stay put at 3,800m until you acclimatise. You may as well have walked. One of the great joys of a hike up Kilimanjaro is passing through its multitude of different climate zones. Trekking through the forest is an essential part of this experience and should not be missed.

Trekking operators employ hundreds of porters to carry equipment on Kilimanjaro
Trekking operators employ hundreds of porters to carry equipment on Kilimanjaro

I once cheated this way myself on Elbrus (5,642m), the highest mountain in Europe. I took a cable car from 2,400m in the ski resort of Azau on its southern side, up to 3,400m, then a chairlift up to Barrels camp at 3,700m. I then had to spend 2 nights there while I acclimatised, first by walking up the mountain and coming back down again, then getting the cable car down to Azau and back up again. Madness. I actually enjoy walking. Elbrus ended up being a tick on the box for me. It was nice to go there and experience the summit, but I wished I’d climbed the northern side where none of this infrastructure exists.

It has been noted elsewhere that a cable car on Kilimanjaro could also end up harming the local economy if it’s used to transport equipment for trekking groups. In this case it would take employment away from the hundreds of porters who are currently hired to carry food and equipment for trekkers. This could be addressed by stipulating that the cable car should only be used to transport people, not supplies. The trouble is that rules are not always followed, bribes are relatively common, and unscrupulous operators will always try and undermine the system. Enforcement is the key here. If rules are made and enforced then it could be possible to protect the porter economy

So I think I’m done, but before I sign off: one final word on pots and kettles. Given the number of cable cars, ski lifts and railway lines we’ve strung up mountainsides in Europe and North America, it’s hard for us to claim that Tanzania shouldn’t have one without sounding like Boris Johnson telling us all to social distance while making his merry way to the next Downing Street Christmas Party.

If the Tanzanian government is determined to go ahead with their plan, then I hope it’s done sensitively, minimising the impact on the environment while providing maximum benefit to the local economy and enhancing the enjoyment of this majestic mountain to all who visit it.

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2 thoughts on “Kilimanjaro cable car: is it a good idea? That depends on its purpose

  • December 18, 2021 at 7:47 am
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    In Nepal helicopter trips to EBC 5400m and Kala Pattar 5600m are available and I have not heard of any deaths from those yet. After all they stay up there only for up to 15 minutes to snap their selfies. Too short a time to develop full blown AMS while feeling out of breath is guaranteed.

    The danger is the reliability of the cable car. Power cut off for few hours with a hundred day trippers stranded on the summit? That would be a disaster.

    What comes to protecting the porters livelihood this is an ancient problem. There are no porters in European mountain ranges anymore to speak of, replaced by cable cars and helicopters. In Nepal road networks have made large part of cargo portering unnecessary. This will happen in Africa also, sooner or later.

  • December 19, 2021 at 11:16 am
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    You covered it well Mark. The project will probably be built by foreigners with imported components and rely on foreign maintenance and operation my question is who can afford a ride on it? Are foreign tourists going to visit Tanzania for a cable car?

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